Which famous Victorian poet-painter was the 20th child of a dodgy stockbroker? Yes, it was the man in the runcible hat, Edward Lear. His latest biographer, Peter Levi, confides to us that, like Lear’s mother, his own grandmother also had 21 children. Easily lured into digression, Levi adds that ‘it is not uncommon in such families that by some mysterious compensation of nature a number of the children or grandchildren should be childless, and that is what happened in Edward’s family.’ Seven of the Lear siblings never had a chance to breed; the gifted 20th turned out to be, as the Victorians used to say, not the marrying kind. By another mysterious compensation of nature he rejoiced greatly in the company of children and is described in this book as ‘one of the world’s natural uncles’.
It used to be said that at any given moment a book about Nelson was on the way, but the Lear industry is putting up stiff competition. Levi in his bibliography does not bother to mention studies by Peter Quennell, John Lehmann, Joanna Richardson and Susan Chitty, among others. He does, however, pay his warm respects to Vivien Noakes’s definitive Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer (1968, reissued 1985). Noakes has reviewed Levi’s book – ‘a joyous interpretation’ – in the Daily Telegraph. In the Sunday Telegraph Paul Johnson asked the ‘why, oh why’ question: why another life of Lear? He seemed stumped for an answer.
Levi says his book springs in part from an under-researched lecture on Lear he gave as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Lear did not, as many suppose, invent the limerick but merely popularised it. Notoriously, he often squandered the fifth line by making it a lazy variant on the first, whereas, as we are told here, it should serve as ‘a sudden crescendo with a rhyme like a stone from a catapult’. An obscenity, Levi adds, is always a great help. Lear was content to evoke mild subversive fantasies for children, usually involving animals or old persons. He showed that it was possible to write a clean limerick about an old man of Nantucket, a feat few could pull off today. Had the fancy taken him, he could have penned a resoundingly obscene limerick about the old men of the Nile, whose ways were unspeakably vile, and whose favourite entertainment, as described to Lear by a Prussian consul, was such that he recorded it in Greek (which Levi is well able to translate for us). Levi also knows enough about Greek literature to reveal that George Seferis wrote a book of limericks for a grandson and reminds us – though readers of this journal need no reminding – that the French had their limericks too. He is much exercised by Lear’s old person of Sparta, who had 25 sons and one daughter – ‘He fed them on snails and weighed them on scales, that wonderful person of Sparta’. Where had Lear observed this wonderful person? ‘The likeness’ – in Lear’s drawing – ‘to an early 19th-century Greek is startling, and so are the row of his children and the number of them. It seems to me that Lear must have seen some ancestor of Kavafis in the family shipping business of Liverpool.’ These are deep and chartless waters. It is easier to show that the old person of Tring who embellished his nose with a ring was not a Rothschild. Like many others, Levi is ready to find real pathos in such supposedly autobiographical nonsense poems as ‘The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo’, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ and ‘Uncle Arly’, but some of us with blunter sensibilities have grown to resent these items as superannuated anthology-fodder. If tears are to be shed over Lear’s nonsense verses it should be for the way he was ripped off by his publishers.
However, it is not on the poet but the painter that Levi chooses to concentrate. Lear was born in 1812, when Dr William Gilpin’s cult of the picturesque was being vigorously debunked in The Adventures of Doctor Syntax, and the bemused water-colourists who jostled at the viewing-stations in the Lakes had tired of holding up their tinted Claude glasses to reflect and refine the view. It is odd that Levi, so fond of digressions, overlooks the risibilities of Gilpin, since Lear in his own way was much in thrall to the sublime picturesque. As a youth he sold his first modest landscapes to persons descending from stage-coaches. His drudgeries included illustrating morbid conditions for medical texts, but thanks to a precocious skill at drawing birds and queer mammals, the queerer the better, he was found work at the Earl of Derby’s Knowsley menagerie. This was the start of an aristocratic embrace which led to his giving drawing lessons to the young Queen Victoria, whom he ‘adored’. Levi finds the drawings of creatures like tree-rats ‘mesmerising’ and, in an odd comparison, says: ‘They are as good and as humorous as the letters of Jane Austen.’
It was for his water-colours that Lear, all too slowly, became renowned, but this was never the road to riches. Many gentlefolk thought it bad form to sell such trifles, which were for giving to friends. Inevitably Lear was driven to turning out rich oils for rich people. His decision to learn the trade at the Academy schools is regarded by Levi as one of two towering mistakes, the other being to conceive a ‘defenceless adoration’ of Holman Hunt, an ally who is here heaped with the sort of abuse Dr Rowse reserves for the ‘third-rate’ – the man is an ‘ass’, with only a ‘small portion of brains’, turning out works of ‘idiocy’, and so on. To improve Lear’s technique Hunt sends him ‘painting cedar-trees in the gardens of hotels in winter’. At one point we find Lear tying a stuffed rook to a tree, a subject for a limerick if ever there was one.
The book sheds often comical light on the hardships and pitfalls of the artistic life. We read how Lear in a burst of energy, by an assembly-line process, produced 60 finished copies of water-colours in 60 days, priced at ten or twelve guineas each. Levi thinks more highly of the results than does Noakes. Selling the stuff was the problem. Lear’s friend Tennyson took pictures from time to time but Lear complained of being treated like ‘a seller of rugs’. And there was the day when the Westminsters and Rothschilds looked in and bought nothing. On his death, Lear had some ten thousand unsold prints, which he left to his friends.
Lear the man, rather than the poet or painter, is an abiding mystery. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says, bluntly, ‘Lear, a homosexual ...’ (why else, after all, would an Englishman live abroad?). Susan Chitty’s biography, That Singular Person Called Lear (1988), was presented as a study of ‘the complicated and fascinating psychology of the Victorian homosexual’, though its author concedes: ‘It seems probable that Lear’s love for young men was of the Platonic variety.’ Levi says that ‘there is no evidence whatever of homosexuality’ in Lear’s life. Listing the three closest friendships, he repeats: ‘None ... was remotely sexual, though they were all deeply affectionate, and all life-long.’ What of that first impetuous excursion to Delphi with young Frank Lushington, when the happy pair decked their hats and horses with wild flowers? ‘I do not think the key to this is precisely sexual attraction, but the spring in Greece at full blast,’ says Levi, in the spirit of Honi soit. The diaries of that period have not survived. Lushington in due time became a taciturn stipendiary magistrate in London. Of Lear’s other two close friends, one entered the Liberal Cabinet and the other was appointed Viceroy of India. In late years Lear was strongly drawn to young Hubert Congreve, for whom he conceived the sort of attachment the elderly Field-Marshal Montgomery felt for a schoolboy. And for nearly thirty years there was the Suliote dragoman Giorgis, cook, valet, nurse, polyglot interpreter and companion, ever ready to escort his master on his endless journeys in the Mediterranean and the Levant. Occasionally the wanderer’s thoughts turned to marriage, but never for long. When Augusta Bethell was in his sights he failed to commend himself to her father, Lord Westbury, with a learned but ill-judged pun equating sequax with wild ducks (sea-quacks, get it?). ‘Lear,’ said the Lord Chancellor, ‘I abominate the forcible introduction of ridiculous images, calculated to distract the mind from what it is contemplating.’ Just so must the young Betjeman have suffered when courting the daughter of a commander-in-chief. Lear, we are told, relished the company of sophisticated old ladies and he had an unbounded esteem for Lady Tennyson, as well as ‘adoring’ her children. He made a point of cultivating his friends’ wives. It is possible he remained a bachelor because of his epileptic attacks (which he covered up well), or even because of the maladie d’ amour he picked up as a young man about London. In the light of current obsessions it is perhaps relevant that he was molested by a relative at the age of ten; this was ‘the worst evil done to me in my life’, he told his diary in late years. Levi assures us he was ‘as bright as a button’ at 13, but throughout his life of wandering, despite his capacity for making friends, he was a prey to deep-seated glooms.
In the end it is Lear as a traveller who monopolises our attention. Those were the days before the Promenade des Anglais became a multi-lane race-track and the Middle Sea, as some say, ended up as a giant lavatory bowl. Not that all was idyllic, even with Rome at £2 a month. Letters and diaries tell of fleas, mosquitoes, untended chamber-pots, the room shared with a mad dervish, the bed with a sheep under it, and the threat of cholera, earthquake and revolution ever present in the background. For an epileptic with weak lungs, who could be driven to spitting blood by the fumes from Vesuvius, Lear did extraordinarily well to survive the untrodden ways of Calabria and the Balkans. In Albania one morning he saw a one-eyed murderess glowering at him through bars and recognised her as the woman who had earlier waited on him at table. The Cretans pounced on his flea-powder and used it for snuff. In Reggio he overheard two English sprigs dismissing him as ‘only a dirty landscape painter’, and that was worse than any hornet sting. Today’s guide-books no longer advise travellers to the Near East to carry pistols, since shooting the natives is out of fashion. Holman Hunt mocked Lear as the sort who would rather die than use a pistol, but Lushington gave him one and showed him how to use it. At Petra brigands robbed him of most of his goods but strangely left him his weapon and watch. Stung to wrath, the mild Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo laid hands on an unhelpful sheikh and, in a dangerous situation, behaved more or less as an Englishman should, conducting a phased withdrawal with only ‘a diminishing trail of bribes’. The food on his odysseys varied from dishes containing ‘corvine mandibles’ and ‘moth tart’ to feasts of blackbirds and quails prepared by the faithful Giorgis. Eventually, when Giorgis cracked up. Lear felt a responsibility towards the man’s syphilitic sons in Corfu and again tried to behave like an Englishman. For many of these tales Levi has milked the post-1858 unpublished diaries for all they are worth, and sometimes more. Whenever Lear returns to England we learn how much money he now has in the three per cents. His friends over the years are always making him loans but he has no great difficulty in building a couple of Rivieran villas, one after the other, for his retirement. The photograph captioned ‘Lear 1862’ is surely the last photograph of him taken in 1887.
As the author of a life of Tennyson, Peter Levi is well equipped to describe the often difficult relationship between the two men. A deep respect for In Memoriam, which he read in times of stress, did not prevent Lear from privately parodying the laureate’s style. Tennyson had been entranced by Lear’s early watercolours and wrote a praiseful poem ‘To E.L., on His Travels in Greece’, the one containing that spell-binding line ‘The vast Akrokeraurian walls’. The exchanges with Tennyson make amusing reading. Levi is eager to tease out the skeins of cousinhoods linking a society in which everyone knew, or was related to, everyone else. Quoting from the diaries, he tends to stuff too many goods into portmanteau sentences. Otherwise his style is relaxed and informal (a bishop goes through his diocese like a dose of salts) and he is no abject slave to chronology. He brings enthusiasm to his task and clearly adores (to use his favourite word) his subject; though he deplores an occasional descent into piffle and the evil influence on the traveller’s prose style of ‘the rise of the Victorian funny book’. We should all rejoice that the 20th child never went up to university where, it is suggested, he could have been prepared for ‘a tranquil life as a scientist with theological doubts for a private hobby’. Yet even as an academic he would probably have turned out a light-minded melancholic and a gregarious loner.